He always called me “Bubba,” and it made me feel special, even though I knew he called most other men and boys “Bubba,” too. In the South, that’s as close to an endearment for other males as most men can come. At left, several years ago, he was showing my son Samuel how to lace shrimp and bacon kabobs.
Johnny Brown had a way of making other people feel special, feel comfortable, feel at home. When he died early last Friday morning, a good dose of homespun hospitality was lost from this world, and that makes me very sad. The man who sometimes called himself “The Big ‘un” was a big part of my life for many years, and he’s not here anymore.
When I first got to know Johnny very well, there was a pig between us. Two, actually. I was a fresh young pastor in Hogansville, Georgia, eager to meet new people and “grow the church.” Johnny’s wife attended, but he — who’d been raised a Methodist — stayed home. One day I asked Carol how I could get to know Johnny, and she replied that he could use some help that night, as he was planning to slaughter a couple of hogs.
I knew how to do that, so I sharpened the big knife I use on such occasions, bundled up in an old coat, and joined him. In a bitterly cold wind, we slaughtered two sows and laid out the meat to cure a bit, except for some tenderloin that we fried up somewhere near midnight. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Before long, Johnny joined our church. When I baptized him, however, I failed to get the tip of his left elbow under water. Afterward, anytime he let a cuss word slip, he would blame it on me for leaving a little Methodist in him.
Johnny worked for Southern Bell for 30 years before retiring, then opened a catering business and built a restaurant in the pasture behind his house. He called it “Johnny Brown’s Country Fixin’s,” and his slogan was “Best Que and Stew Anywhere.” He was buried Sunday, wearing his trademark bib overalls, the casket filled with pictures of grandchildren and great grandchildren, one born less than two hours before the funeral.
When I stood there, in the funeral home, looking down at my friend, the overalls looked natural, but his face didn’t look right to me. I realized after a minute or so that it was because he wasn’t smiling. Johnny smiled with his entire face, and he smiled often, and when he did, it was like sunlight shining through the trees.
Johnny was never the type of person who talked a lot about Jesus, but he lived a lot like Jesus, showing kindness and grace and good cheer to those he met. There’s no telling how many volunteer hours he put in, or how much gas he invested in supporting high school band members and majorettes and cheerleaders, as well as local charities.
For me, especially, Johnny was an encourager. I sat up with him after surgery to remove one of his kidneys years ago, and later the other one failed. He spent more than 10 years on dialysis, while diabetes ate away at his feet, one toe at the time. Yet, he remained positive and optimistic, always proving to be good medicine to those who cared for him. He knew how to face adversity and move on.
Johnny was locally famous for a number of characteristic “sayings.” When he knew I was stressed about something, for example, he would always so “Don’t worry about the mule going blind, just load the wagon.” I never understand why the mule was visually challenged, but I took him to mean that we should focus on those things we have some control over, and not sweat too much over those things we can’t control.
At other times in my life, when I have faced hard or dark times, I didn’t even have to call Johnny to remember his advice and sense his encouragement. Some things about him just took up residence in my head and heart, and when difficult days came, I could always hear him, from the back of my mind, saying “Push on, push on.”
That’s what his family is doing today, and so many others who loved him. And though most folks reading this blog were not lucky enough to know Johnny Brown, I hope you’ll share with me a prayer of thanks for God’s gift to the world of a unique, wide open, special man, and push on.